Walsh, Robert John

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MB BS 1939

Robert Walsh, a geneticist and medical scientist, was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales from 1973 to 1982. In 1946 he was inaugural Director of the New South Wales Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service.

Robert was born in Brisbane in 1917, but spent almost his entire working career in Sydney. He enrolled at the University of Queensland in 1934, but since a medical school had not yet been established there, he proceeded to the University of Sydney in 1935 to pursue a medical degree, graduating with honours in 1939. In 1940, he was a Junior Resident Medical Officer at Sydney Hospital and was appointed Senior Resident Medical Officer a year later. The outbreak of war in September 1939, however, was to have a considerable influence on his future career. In 1941, while still only 24, he became Medical Officer to the Red Cross Society, helping to recruit donors for the supply of blood in the event of possible air raids on Sydney. As he suffered from hypertension that precluded active service abroad, he served at home in command of an army unit established for the preparation of blood serum for the armed forces.

During the early stages of World War II, preparations were being made for the treatment of severely injured civilian casualties, should air raids on Sydney eventuate. Though the value of transfused blood in the resuscitation of battle casualties had been demonstrated during World War I, by the outbreak of World War II, little progress had been made in methods of storing blood for subsequent use; consequently, the concept of blood banks was just emerging. In New South Wales individual hospitals had formed panels of blood donors on whom they could call when necessary, but blood transfusion was a rare form of therapy. Experiments had shown the efficacy of plasma and serum in the treatment of burn shock, but such treatment had not been introduced widely for the resuscitation of patients.

In February 1941, the Red Cross Society obtained premises to enrol, examine and test volunteers who would be called upon when the need arose. The Medical Co-ordination Committee had approached Robert to take over the Medical Officer’s duties. Ten thousand donors were recruited in those three months and Robert was asked to continue the work until June 1941. It was at this time that the New South Wales Blood Transfusion Service changed from a civilian to a mainly military role. Robert had resigned from Sydney Hospital and had enlisted in the Army. Now, at the request of the DGMS, he was posted as the officer commanding the new unit. He remained there throughout the war as Major Robert; he also acted as Secretary to the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Committee.

He was assisted in his task by the National Blood Transfusion Service Committee set up to coordinate the work of the army blood and serum preparation units that had been established in all States except Tasmania. So successful was the New South Wales Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service during the war that at the end of hostilities, it was decided that the service should continue. On his release from the Army in 1946, Robert, still only in his twenties, was invited to be the first Director of the New South Wales Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service. He held this position until his resignation in 1966.

When the Red Cross granted him 18 months’ leave of absence to study abroad in 1947 and 1948, he turned his attention primarily to iron metabolism. From an academic point of view, he was interested in the role of iron in the formation of red blood cells. However, iron metabolism was also of great immediate practical importance for the blood donors, who had to speed up the manufacture of red cells in order to make up the loss they had incurred from their donation. Another early interest in the problems of blood banking was the use of available antibodies for the identification of blood groups, and in particular, the study of unexpected agglutination results occurring either in vivo or in vitro in the course of work at the Blood Transfusion Centre. The pursuance of this work, which included the discovery of the first example of an anti-S serum, led naturally to an interest in population studies of blood group antigens. This became a fertile area for further research, and studies on Aboriginal and Pacific Islander populations followed. By 1954, two full-time Research Fellows funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) had been appointed. At about the same time the Nuffield Foundation gave a grant jointly to the University of Sydney and the New South Wales Blood Transfusion Service to enable an expedition to the highland region of New Guinea for certain studies of the native population.

In 1962 Robert was appointed Visiting Professor of Human Genetics at the newly established medical school at the University of New South Wales. Probably of equal importance to the university, however, was his wise counsel as a member of faculty and of several of its committees in the planning of the medical school in its early stages. He was a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia. On the basis of his medical research, Robert had been elected to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science in 1959 and in the same year, became a member of the Research Advisory Committee of the NHMRC.

Throughout the 60s, he continued to become involved in other organisations, becoming a member of the NHMRC research advisory committee in 1959, a member of the Council of the Australian Academy of Science in 1963, of the Australian Research Grants Committee in 1965, and of the National Radiation Advisory Committee in 1966. In addition he was one of a small group to found the Haematology Society of Australia.

Toward the end of 1966, he resigned as Director of the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service in order to accept a full-time position as Professor of Human Genetics and Head of the School of Human Genetics at the University of New South Wales. In 1969, he became a member of the University Council and in 1970, accepted the demanding position of Chairman of the Professional Board. Around this time, he also became involved in several Australian Government committees, among others, as Chairman of a joint Commonwealth-Queensland Committee of Inquiry into the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish. This committee was to review the present knowledge of the crown-of-thorns starfish, to determine whether they constituted a threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and if so, to determine what control measures should be undertaken.

In addition to these university and government commitments, Robert was a member of the Science and Industry Forum of the Australian Academy of Science; President of Section 15 of the 42nd ANZAAS Congress and a member of the Council of ANZAAS; President of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences; a member of the scientific sub–committee of Apex Trust for Autism, the Queen Elizabeth Fellowships Committee, and the medical and scientific committee of the World Federation of Haemophilia; President of the Sydney Hospitallers Association; a member of the Pathology Sub–committee of Sydney Hospital and of the International Society of Haematology; President of the Cystic Fibrosis Association of New South Wales; and a member of the Medical research Advisory Committee of New Guinea and the Council of the Institute of Human Biology of Papua New Guinea.

In March 1973, Robert accepted the position of Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in the University, a position that he held until his retirement in January 1982. He also continued to accept outside responsibilities. In 1972, he had become Deputy Chairman of the National Blood Transfusion Service Committee, and on the disbandment of the National Radiation Advisory Committee in 1973, he was appointed Chairman of the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council that replaced it. He also accepted membership of several other committees and the editorial boards of scientific journals He was a serving Brother of the Order of St John and an Honorary Life Member of the Red Cross Society, the Australian Blood Transfusion Society, the Haematology Society of Australia, the German Haematology Society, the German Society for Blood Transfusion and the Australian Society of Anaesthetists.

Robert retired in January 1982 at the age of 65. He was awarded the OBE in 1970, AO in 1976, the James Cook Medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1980 and AC in 1982.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Walsh, Robert John. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.